Freedom Is Not So Easily Bought

Straeon Manor - Kitchen 1967Kitchen — 1967

“William, is this really necessary?” Barbara watches the movers heft the thing up onto her counter and frowns, one arm over her chest and the other over her mouth. Damn, but William is like a child on Christmas: leaning too close to the movers, examining the little knobs. Of course, that was William. He finally hit on an idea that paid off, and he began to bleed money.

It started with moving in to this creepy old house — just because the neighbors were a certain kind of wealthy, a class of people who had been too good to hire Barbara to clean their homes. Now he was obsessed with filling it with things, silly and frivolous, to make life easy. She was getting smaller and smaller every day, with every new ‘freedom’ that William’s newly won fortune provided. She cleared her throat to pull herself out of that frame of thought. “It’s such an eye sore.”

He stepped back from the counter and wrapped an arm around her waist. “It’s the future, Barb! Look at it. In ten years no one will use an oven at all. Do you have any idea how much less time you’ll spend cooking?” He kissed her cheek and nuzzled her close, as though they were sixteen again. “You shouldn’t be on your feet so much, once you’re pregnant.”

Mutely, she nodded as the men handed some paperwork to William and left. The microwave, unfortunately, remained behind. Light reflected off the metallic surfaces — her reflection, distorted in the frame of the door.

William tossed the manual onto the counter. “I’m going to find Betsy and have some drinks on the deck to celebrate. I bet the Worthingtons are dying to know what we just got. Join us, love?”

Thankful for something to keep her back, Barbara forced her smile and shook her head. She moved across the room to pick up the instructional manual, to smudge her reflection with her fingerprints — under the guise of admiration, of course. He was only doing these things because he wanted to make her happy. “I’m going to read up on this, dear. Tonight I’ll make something wicked fast.”

He grinned ear to ear, and bellowed for the maid as he left the room. Poor Betsy, so obviously caught up in William’s idea of what it meant to be a rich and influential family.

Barbara leaned against the counter, flipping through the manual without really absorbing any of it. Safety warnings blurred together with setting options and cooking recommendations. A roast in 38 minutes — it seemed unreal, as unreal as standing the kitchen in stockings and a silk sundress, as living in a home with more servants than family.

As unreal as the idea that she was ever going to bear William more children. When they had been scraping by on what she made working around town, when they were trying to survive William’s hare-brain schemes to get rich — then she had believed they could have children. Not a herd like her family, just a few kids. A little blond boy and a curly-haired girl, to keep up the appearances of their perfect family.

Of course, it was never quite so easy. Six children over seven years — four who never made it past her second trimester, one who was born without life, one lost to crib death after just a few weeks. She had still been in mourning, her breasts and heart heavy, when the money started rolling in.

“Mrs. Barlow?”

Barbara wiped her cheeks and looked up from the microwave manual to smile at Betsy. She was young, dark-haired, and dressed immaculately. Betsy and her family had come along with the manor, as though their services had been included in the sale price. “Yes?”

“Can I make you a drink?”

“Oh, no, dear, thank you.” Barbara looked over her shoulder at the microwave, a huge presence on the otherwise immaculate counter top. It was a burden — no amount of speed or convenience changed that. It was another thing that she, as a wealthy wife, was expected to fold into her life without complaint. Something that she was supposed to want.

None of this was what she wanted. “What do you think of this monstrous contraption?”

“I suppose it must be very fine, from the look of it,” Betsy replied. She moved through the kitchen with practiced ease, placing each drink on the platter as she mixed it. It looked as though the Worthington’s had popped in, guessing by their signature drinks — Mr. Worthington’s scotch and his wife’s glass of wine — placed next to the mint julep that William pretended to love. Betsy continued without looking up, “But my mother would be appalled. She takes great pride in her cooking, and there seems to be little art in turning a dial.”

Barbara puffed out a laugh, closing the booklet and setting it atop the microwave. “I suppose so. Even a foolish man could cook with it, if his wife refused.”

“Good thing that Mr. Barlow has a household.” Betsy flushed, her expression a bit scandalized. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything?”

“Thank you, Betsy, but I’ll be fine.”

With a brief nod, Betsy lifted her tray and left Barbara alone again.

Alone was a relief, if she was honest. William was wearing on her, no longer the boy she had fallen in love with in the summers of their youth. This house was wearing on her, with the berth of bedrooms that they could never fill with children, just another reminder that she was unwilling to try again.

Peering out the window over the sink, Barbara caught a glimpse of William laughing as Betsy handed him his drink. The sun caught his hair, turning it golden and alive, and her heart ached. It could never be enough, just the two of them. He wanted to keep her in place — and she wanted to run as fast as her feet could carry her.

“I need to leave.” Her voice cracked and she pressed a hand over her heart as though she could mend it with hope alone.

“Mrs. Barlow?”

Cursing silently, Barbara looked over her shoulder to where Betsy stood in the doorway, empty platter in hand. It was never so simple as being alone in this damn house. It ought to be big enough to offer some privacy. “Yes?”

“Are you going somewhere?” Betsy didn’t look surprised or worried, so much as mildly curious. “Should I have the car pulled up front?”

“No, I just need to go for a walk.” Barbara straightened her back, filled her lungs with air to hold herself up. “I’ll go around the block, get my head on straight. Thank you, Betsy.”

“Of course, ma’am. Shall I tell Mr. Barlow you’ve gone?”

Barbara shook her head. “He won’t even notice I’ve left.” A certain freedom overtook her. He would drink with Mr. Worthington until he got hungry; the cash in her purse would get her to her mother’s, no question, before he noticed she was gone.

Allowing one last glance out the window, out to her dear William who would probably never quite understand why, she ran.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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